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Sailing towards positive mental health

Sea Sanctuary using Sailability scheme to support mental health objectives

Sailability may have been traditionally associated with physical abilities, but with mental health care coming under intense scrutiny, could Sailability be increasingly used to promote positive mental health too?

Cornish charity, Sea Sanctuary, believe so as since working with RYA Disability Development Officer, Leon Ward, to become an RYA Sailability
site just over 18 months ago, they have seen the Certificate of Achievement scheme enhance their activities in providing positive mental health interventions through sail training.

One in four people will face a mental health challenge at one stage in their life, and Sea Sanctuary offers health education through four-day therapy-based residential trips aboard an 85ft gaff rigged ketch, Grace,
from people with long-term mental illness to those wanting to improve their mental wellbeing or de-stress.

Learning to sail a yacht is not the primary purpose of the trips. But as Sea Sanctuary, the first organisation of its kind in European waters and to be commissioned by the NHS, have found the process of learning a new skill through following the Certificate of Achievement syllabus all contributes to improvements in mental health.

Daniel Newman is Operations Manager at Sea Sanctuary. He explains.

“People come to us from across the whole spectrum of mental health needs. We work with people of any age, subject to an assessment, via self-referral or clinical referral through the NHS and provide a safe, naturalistic environment as an alternative venue for mental health care, cruising on the Cornish coast.

“For some clients even getting out of bed or catching a bus is a big challenge. People with mental illness probably don't consider themselves disabled but their conditions can often be disabling in that they have times when they don’t feel able to leave the house, can’t socialise, and don’t look after their physical wellbeing.

“Being near or on the water certainly seems to be good for mental wellbeing, however the sail training element takes people out of their comfort zone and shows them they can do things they never believed they would do, because they are part of a team and everyone needs to contribute to sailing the boat.

“Working through the Certificate of Achievement enables us to go through a structured programme that recognises and rewards learning in a very low pressure way. The confidence that comes from such achievement can have a significant impact on someone’s mental health and we have found that very useful.”

Life on the waves

Independent research shows sail training enables people to develop life skills such as self-confidence, resilience, team working and leadership skills. Meanwhile, with psychological and physical health so interrelated, Sea Sanctuary have noted the primary physical ways sailing can improve psychological health.

CEO and founder Joe Sabian set up Sea Sanctuary in 2010 having worked in the NHS and seen how difficult it was for some to access to mental health services. On every trip Sea Sanctuary staff include therapists who have learned to sail and qualified sailors who have undertaken mental health awareness training.

The team includes a Consultant Psychologist, who has input into all programmes, while the Trustees include a Consultant Psychiatrist. Non-clinical interventions delivered during trips range from mindfulness activities, such as breathing and relaxation exercises, to meditation and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

For many people, Daniel continues, the real benefit comes from just having permission to step away from everyday life.

“On the boat you get at least four hours a day sailing in an environment where people can talk and share their experiences of mental health, either with each other or our therapists. They can talk about the weather or coastline or about their health, all the conversations are completely organic, there is no pressure to talk about anything at a particular time, which in itself can reduce anxiety.

“A common trait our clients have on arrival is a lack of confidence so anxiety levels tend to be higher than usual. The first impression is about making our clients feel welcome, valued and worth something; they have top quality wet weather and lifejackets, enjoy good quality, nutritional meals and are given time and space.

“Some people don’t want to get involved in helping to sail the boat straight away, others are more willing. But gradually, as they get to know their crewmates better, become more familiar with the environment and confidence grows, so we see involvement increase and more boxes on the Certificate of Achievement ticked.”

Charting Progress

Grace sails out of Falmouth and returns to the marina each evening so clients can have a hot shower and take advantage of some of the shoreside facilities.

People can sail with Sea Sanctuary every year while the charity runs a programme of land-based activities, including art and creative writing groups and other continuing therapeutic interventions, to continue the year-round contact and support.

There is a Stand Up Paddleboarding programme for young people too, while Sea Sanctuary are also developing activities to help employers and commercial organisations maintain a workforce that is healthy is body and mind through sailing.

However, while achieving positive mental wellbeing might be a long-term, ongoing process, Daniel admits the benefits from the trips are evident almost instantly.

“The thing that really changes quickly is their faces,” he concludes. “You can typically see the stress and tension in the lines in people’s faces when they arrive for their trip but after only a couple of days that tension has dropped away, their faces look smoother and their whole body more relaxed.

“The camaraderie and team spirit that develops onboard results in a happy mood. Sitting on the deck of a boat, with the sun on your face and the noise of the waves are all subtle, unconscious inputs that when combined with the therapeutic interventions can make a huge difference to someone being able to find a balance.”

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